Mexico’s Earmarked Gold Bars at the Bank of England vaults
Guillermo Barba, the Mexican financial and economic journalist, has recently published an article on his website confirming that through an information request that he had made to Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México (Banxico), the central bank has now released what amounts to a relatively comprehensive list of Mexico’s gold bars held in storage at the Bank of England gold vaults in London.
Mexico’s list is an inventory of wholesale market gold bars that Banixco owns and stores in custody at the Bank of England vaults in London. In the contemporary parlance of the gold market, most people would call this type of holding an allocated gold holding, but more historically in the Bank of England world, it has been known as an “earmarked gold” holding or a “set-aside gold” holding because the specific bars are set-aside for a specific central bank, in other words the central bank has its name attached to those particular bars (earmarked).
Wholesale gold bars are also known as London Good Delivery gold bars or variable weight gold bars, and each weighs in the region of 400 troy ounces ( ~ 12.5 kilos). On the Banixco list, there are 7,265 wholesale gold bars listed. This new list is one of the very few detailed central bank gold bars lists (weight lists) which exists in the public domain, and it could be useful for a number of purposes (see below).
Barba has done persistent and diligent work over the last 6 years, by patiently obtaining more and more information from the Mexican central bank about its gold reserves via various Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), and shedding some light on this usually opaque area of gold and central banking.
2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy
Before we examine this newly published list from the Banco de México, a little background is useful. As of February 2017, Mexico held about 120.7 tonnes of gold in its official gold reserves, which puts the country at the tail-end of the world’s Top 30 official/country gold holders.
All through the 2000s, Banixco only held a few tonnes of gold in its official reserves, ranging from about 4 tonnes and 9 tonnes. This situation changed in early 2011 when the Mexican central bank purchased just over 93 tonnes of gold in March 2011 (first reported by the FT in early May 2011). This brought Mexico’s gold holdings up from 7.1 tonnes to about 100.2 tonnes by the end of Q1 2011. The country’s official gold holdings were boosted further to about 125.2 tonnes by Q2 2012 when Banixco bought more than 16 tonnes in March 2012. See World Gold Council quarterly changes of central bank gold holdings for the underlying data.
After Mexico made these sizeable gold purchases in early 2011, Guillermo Barba submitted various FOIAs to the Mexican central bank about the country’s newly acquired gold stash. Unfortunately, most of these information requests received weak responses from the Bank. For example, the question:
“How many bars of gold make up the recent acquisition of 93 tonnes of gold made by Banxico en the first quarter of 2011”
received a response from Banixco of:
“…we inform you that the information that you request is classified as reserved”
The Mexican central bank also added that:
“due to the variability of the content of gold in the bars, it is not possible to specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased.”
We later learned that the Bank of England purchased this “gold” on behalf of Mexico. On the surface, Banixco saying that it could not “specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased” seems to suggest that at least some of the Mexican gold at that time in 2011 was held on a unallocated basis and possibly out on loan to bullion banks in the London gold lending market.
If Mexico bought actual gold bars at the outset in Q1 2011, the gold bought for Mexico was probably already sitting in the Bank of England vaults. Some of it may then have been lent out to bullion banks immediately. Alternatively, at the outset in Q1 2011, the Bank of England could have ‘sold’ to Mexico a fine ounce claim on a number of gold ounces, that could then be allocated to actual gold bars on a future date. Without seeing the purchase invoices of the Mexican gold transactions, it’s hard to say what the initial purchase transactions referred to.
Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:
“In what country or countries is the gold that forms part of the International Reserves of Mexico physically located?”
“access to the requested information will not be granted, since it is classified as reserved”
Barba’s article addressing his questions in 2011 and Banixco’s responses, which was published in September 2011, can be read here.
118 Tonnes at the Bank of England
In October 2012, Barba received responses to further information requests that he had made to Banixco, with Banixco confirming that:
“At month’s end, April 2012, Banco de Mexico maintained a position in fine gold of 4,034,802 ounces, of which only 194,539 ounces are located in the territory of the United Mexican States.
“countries where these reserves are located are ‘United States of America, England and Mexico.‘
‘the acquisitions of gold during March and April 2012 are under custody in England’.”
[the gold is stored in] “the city of London, England, where more than 99% of the gold which the Bank of Mexico maintains outside the country is presently under custody…”
With 4,034,802 ounces (125.5 tonnes) held in total, and 194,539 ounces (6.05 tonnes) held in Mexico, there were 3,840,263 ounces (119.44 tonnes) held outside Mexico, which was 95.2% of Mexico’s total gold holdings. With 99% of the foreign gold in London, this equated to about 3.8 million ounces (118 tonnes) held in London, and about 38,000 ounces (1.2 tonnes) held in the US with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB).
Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco
In February 2013, Guillermo Barba also highlighted that the Mexican Federal Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación or ‘ASF’) Report for the Year 2011 was highly critical of Banixco’s relaxed approach to its gold purchases at the Bank of England.
The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:
“has not conducted physical inspections to gold to verify compliance with the terms of acquisition and the conditions regarding its storage, in order to be certain of the physical custody of this asset”
According to the ASF, Banixco only held documents about the “Terms and Conditions” of the gold holdings contract with the Bank of England, with records of “the dates of the transactions” and also some “payment vouchers”.
ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:
“make a physical inspection with the counterparty [Bank of England] that has the gold under its custody, in order to be able to verify and validate its physical wholeness.”
February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List
Fast forward to 17 February 2017, and Barba published another article confirming that following some further information requests to the Mexican central bank, Banixco had clarified the following facts about its gold holdings:
“Of the 3.881 million ounces of gold that the Bank of Mexico has at the close of October 2016, 98.95% are held in the United Kingdom, 0.0004% in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States and the remaining 1.05 % In Mexico.”
“The Bank of Mexico has the serial number of each ingot protected in accounts assigned abroad. From these accounts, the number of ingots rises to 7,265. It should be noted that for unallocated accounts there is no specific serial number and therefore the number of ingots cannot be determined.”
“Assigned accounts are those that are owned on specific ingots with serial numbers, and segregated from the rest.“
Therefore, for each gold ingot held in a foreign domiciled allocated gold account, Bank of Mexico is in possession of the bar serial numbers. This was the first information from Banixco that specifically addressed the number of gold bars held by the Mexican central bank at the Bank of England.
As of October 2016, with 3,881,000 ounces of gold held by Mexico in total, 98.95% of which was held at the Bank of England in London, that would infer that 3,840,250 ounces of gold (119.4 tonnes) were held in London, with only about 1,550 ounces (0.0004%) held at the FRB in New York.
Assuming each gold bar contains 400 oz troy ounces of gold, then 7,265 bars would contain 2.906 million troy ounces. It would also mean that about 934,000 troy ounces (29 tonnes) of Mexico’s gold are held unallocated accounts (where the gold is not unassigned as specific gold bars). The existence of unallocated gold accounts is revealing since it proves that the Bank of England doesn’t just offer its central bank customers the traditional custody facility of earmarked / set-aside / allocated gold bars. It also offers what either amounts to gold accounts that are denominated on a fine ounces basis but are fully backed by a pool of gold, or alternatively these unallocated accounts may not be fully backed (i.e. fractionally-backed).
To facilitate gold lending in the London Gold Market between central banks (the lenders) and commercial bullion banks (the borrowers), the Bank of England would have to operate account facilities for its customers that were in a sense dematerialised because when a central bank lends gold bars to a bullion bank, it does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) receive back the same gold bars, because those bars have either been sold in the market or onward lent in the market. Therefore an account convention with specific bars earmarked to a customer would not facilitate this process. Only an account where the unit is a balance of fine troy ounces of gold would allow these transfers to occur. In this scenario, the central bank still insists it has a fine troy ounce gold holding, even though its gold has been lent out to a bullion bank.
The other alternative is that the Bank of England is selling its central bank customers a gold account service where, for example, Central Bank A pays dollar cash upfront for 100 tonnes of gold, and the Bank of England signs a piece of paper saying “We the Bank of England have a liability to Central Bank A for 100 tonnes of gold“, but that gold is not necessarily in the Bank of England vaults or anywhere else. The Bank of England just has to be able to allocated the claim to real physical gold bars if Central Bank A ever decides that its 100 tonne gold asset be converted to allocated gold bars.
Without seeing the “Terms and Conditions” of these “unassigned gold” contracts with the Bank of England, its hard to say how exactly the “unassigned gold” is backed up, and to what extent it’s backed up.
Historically, the Bank of England only ever offered earmarked gold accounts to its central bank customers, and on a few occasions in the 1950s and 1970s it actually pushed back on plans to offer customers fine gold ounce balance accounts (and got legal advice on this), because the Bank did not want to go down the road of ending up with one pool of gold backing multiple central bank customer accounts, as this went against the concept of custody of assets and title to specific gold, and furthermore the Bank was afraid of the legal implications of central banks depositing specific bars but getting back different bars which might not be of the same quality etc.
March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List
Initially, as per his 17 February article, Banixco only provided Barba with a list of the 7,265 gold bars showing two columns of data, the first column listing internal Bar-IDs from the Bank of England’s gold bar database, and the second column listing the refiner brand names of the bars. This first list can be seen here, but it’s not really that important, because a few weeks later, Banixco agreed to provide Barba with a second, much more comprehensive list. This second list is featured in Barba’s article dated 7 March 2017.
The latter Banixco gold bar list file can be downloaded here. For each of the 7,265 gold bars listed (in 7265 Rows), the list contains 7 columns or variables of data, namely:
- Sequence Number from 1 to 7265
- “Serial Number” (which is an internal Bank of England sequence number)
- Brand Code (an 8-digit code)
- Gross Weight (troy ounces to 2 decimal places)
- Assay (gold Fineness)
- Fine Weight (troy ounces to 3 decimal places)
- Refiner Brand
Although the Banixco list does not include the real serial numbers that each gold refiner stamps on its own gold bars, the combination of columns “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” in the list should be adequate to uniquely identify each bar, because don’t forget, these are variable weight bars and each bar for a given refiner will have a different fine weight when expressed to 3 decimal places. The start of the list looks as per the below screenshot:
Overall, the 7265 gold bars weigh 2,919,911.55 troy ounces and contain a total of 2,912,000 fine troy ounces of gold.The list provided by Banixco is sorted by ‘Brand Code’ which is an 8-digit Bank of England database table field that consists of refiner code (digits 1-4), refiner location (digits 5-6) and sequence number (digits 7-8). For example, Valcambi is VALCCH01 i.e. VALC, CH = Switzerland, and 01.
The 2nd column in the list is a Bank of England internal ID bar number which is either 6 or 7 digits. On Mexico’s list, the highest number is 1047712 and the lowest number is 704989, but the numbers present on the list run in short and broken sequential ranges of, for example, 1039142-1039221 or 880338-880446. If this is a sequential internal series of numbers that started at 000001, it would suggest that more than 1 million individual Good Delivery Bars have passed through the Bank of England’s 10 gold vaults since the numbering series was initiated. The series may not be fully sequential at all, and could possibly also include some part of the number signifying vault location, although this is doubtful.
The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List
There are 24 ‘Brand Codes’ listed on the Mexico’s gold bar list, including such refiners as South Africa’s Rand Refinery, Australia’s Perth Mint, Switzerland’s Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and Metalor, the Royal Canadian Mint, Germany’s Heraeus, Johnson Matthey, the US Assay Office, the State Refinery (Moscow), the Central Bank of the Philippines Gold Refinery, and N.M. Rothschild. Many of these brands held at the Bank of England are the same refiner brands which are trusted and popular in the retail investment gold bar market, and carried by BullionStar, such as Perth Mint, Argor-Heraeus, Heraeus, Royal Canadian Mint, and Johnson Matthey.
Some refiners have, or have had over time, refinery operations in multiple geographic locations, so some refiners have multiple Brand Codes listed in the Bank of England gold bar database. One example is Johnson Matthey, which on the Banixco list is listed as 4 separate entities, namely Johnson Matthey Salt Lake City USA, Johnson Matthey and Co Ltd [GB], Johnson Matthey & Mallory Ltd. Toronto, and Johnson Matthey Hong Kong Ltd. Another example is Metalor, which is present on the Banixco list in 3 guises, namely Metalor Hong Kong, Metalor USA, and Metalor Technologies SA (Switzerland).
Other long-standing refiners have gone through various mergers over time and their historic parts are now all part of a larger refining group. This applies to “Perth Mint” bars, which on the Banixco list are represented by Western Australia Mint (Trading as AGR) , AGR Joint Venture Melbourne and the Royal Mint (Perth).
On an individual Brand Code basis, the below table shows these refinery brand names, and the number of gold bars of each brand name that show up on Mexico’s gold bar weight list.
First up is the Rand Refinery, with Banixco holding 1735 rand Refinery gold bars. Nearly a quarter of Banixco’s earmarked bars are Rand Refinery bars. It’s not surprising that on a refiner name basis, Banixco holds more Rand Refinery gold bars than any other bar brand. After all, Rand Refinery of South Africa is said to have refined over 50,000 tonnes of gold since it was established in 1921, which is about 30% of all the gold that has ever been mined. A lot of Rand Refinery bars were also historically sold in the London Gold Market and held within the bank of England vaults. This is probably still the case.
For example, according to the Bank of England archives, most of the gold held by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the Bank of England was (as of the late 1970s) in the form of Rand Refinery gold bars. Whether this is still the case is unclear, as the IMF is ultra secretive about its remaining gold reserves and never reports facts such as gold bar weight lists.
Second up is AGR Joint Venture, which is now technically part of the Perth Mint, with the Bank of Mexico holding 1519 of these bars. Together with the Rand refinery bars, these two brands makeup 45% of Banixco’s total holdings. Adding in the bars of Johnson Matthey Toronto and Valcambi Switzerland, nearly 70% of Mexico’s bars are from just 4 bar brands.
Grouping refiner names where appropriate such as all Johnson Matthey names and all Perth Mint related names, results in a slightly different ranking, with Perth Mint taking pole position with 1892 bars held by Banixco, and with Rand Refinery and Johnson matthey in exact joint second place with 1736 bars a piece in the Mexican holdings.
Under this grouping approach, 74% of Mexico’s gold bars have been manufactured by just 3 refinery groups, rising to nearly 85% if Valcambi bars are included.
One of the reasons for highlighting this, is that it could be useful for extrapolating the frequency of gold bar brands that might be held across gold accounts generally at the Bank of England. While this extrapolation might be flawed, it does suggest that there are certain refinery bars brands that are more common than others within the Bank of England vault network.
The Bank of England did not just go and transfer newly refined gold bars into the Banixco account. It populated the Banixco allocated gold holding (in 2011 or after) with a selection of bars from lots of different eras. Hence the presence of NM Rothschild bars, US Assay Office bars, old Royal Mint (Perth) bars, as well as AGR Joint venture bars. Its also possible that a bullion bank or bullion banks executed the order on behalf of Mexico with gold that these banks store at the Bank of England (bullion banks also store gold at the bank of England for those who were not aware of this fact).
AGR Joint Venture bars were only produced until 2003. See here for details of AGR’s history. NM Rothschild bars have not been produced since 1967. Royal Mint (Perth) bars are extremely old and have not been produced under this name for a very long time. LBMA Good Delivery records don’t even specify when Royal Mint (Perth) bars ceased to be produced. The last Johnson Matthey bars produced in England were in 2005. US Assay Office bars (from the New York Assay Office) haven’t been produced since 1997 at the latest, and mostly well before that. Therefore, even though the Banixco gold bar list doesn’t list year of manufacture for each bar, some inferences can be made to show that a lot of the bars allocated to the Mexican gold account at the Bank of England are old bars that are no longer in production. But that’s not surprising because gold is a store of wealth and has been for 1000s of years, so an old bar is as good as a newer bar.
The bar list is also interesting in that it shows that when the Bank of England (or a bullion bank with a gold holding at the Bank of England) either buys physical gold bars on behalf of a central bank customer, or allocates specific bars to a central bank gold account for a gold balance that was previously in a unallocated account, it is either transferring gold from a Bank of England inventory holding, or by buying gold from another central bank that’s already in its vaults, or else buying gold from a bullion bank that probably also has gold stored at the Bank of England, part of which may be gold that has flowed out of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds that store their gold in the London vaults.
Which brings us to some critical points. Using the “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” combination for bars on the Banixco list, it should be possible to cross reference these bars against records of gold bars that have been held over time in gold-backed ETFs such as GLD and IAU. Various gold researchers such as Warren James maintain databases with records of all gold bars that are in and that have ever been in gold-backed ETFs. If a bar on the Banixco list has a match in those database tables, then it proves that the Bank of England sources gold for its central bank customers that was at one time held in one of the ETFs. And this probably happens, since the bullion banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan are active in allocating and deallocating gold in and out of ETFs, and they hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and are active in the gold lending market.
More importantly, if in the future, a gold-backed ETF flags up one or more gold bars that were among the 7265 gold bars on the Banixco list, and Banixco hasn’t reported selling any gold, then it will prove that Banixco either lent or swapped some of ts gold while still accounting for it under ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its balance sheet, and it will prove that central bank gold is being double counted while on loan, i.e. claimed to be held by a central bank, while really being held in a gold-backed ETF.